Ideology as Platonism


English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I was responding to a Facebook post regarding same-sex marriage. As usual, I was irenic, I presented the classic natural law arguments against that practice, and since the person to whom I was responding was Christian, I presented the arguments from Holy Scripture and from Catholic tradition. Instead of engaging in a reasonable discussion over an important societal issue, my respondent (who is homosexual) proceeded to say I was demeaning her, that made her feel less than a person, that she despised people like me. In other words, she resorted to an abusive ad hominem attack instead of rationally responding to my arguments.

The homosexual rights movement is one of many ideologies that came out of the 1960s and early 1970s. Feminism is another and womanism still another. All these ideologies shared a Marxist interpretation of reality in which the group advocates represented was the oppressed and society at large was the oppressor. Recently, homosexual advocates have begun labeling those who disagree with their lifestyle “haters.” Now this is a characteristic of an ideology–no matter how much compassion I show for homosexuals who are “advocates” (note that not all homosexuals agree with their “representatives”), I am, by definition, labeled as a “hater.” It does not matter that I do not hate homosexuals–the ideology accepts the following syllogism:

All persons who believe that homosexual activity is morally wrong are haters.

This person holds that homosexual activity is morally wrong.

Therefore, this person is a hater.

Given my respondent’s ideology, she had no other way to respond.

All ideologies are Platonic in the sense that they propose overarching visions of reality and apply them from at top-down perspective. That is, like rationalism in general, they do not look to sense experience for justification. The only justification is in terms of the axioms of their system, which are taken to be self-evident. Thus if one axiom says that “Anyone who believes that homosexuality is morally wrong hates homosexuals,” then that axiom applies by definition to all people in that class and cannot be questioned. As is the case with Plato’s transcendent Forms, Descartes’ Cogito, or Leibniz’s monads, reality is forced into the mold of theory instead of the theory being checked by reality.

Some versions (not all) of feminism function the same way. If, by definition, all classic literary works reflect male dominance, then scholars needing publications for tenure can search through texts for code words and sentences that reflect such male domination. In the case of Marxist ideology concerning the economic system, those who are in the bourgeois are, by definition, exploiting the proletariat. Mr. Obama’s use of class warfare recognizes the power of such a position (even though he has been more of a Chinese-style “state capitalist” than a dogmatic Communist). Envy is a powerful emotion, and if it can be justified by definition, then government should “make the rich pay their fair share” (whatever that might be).

Platonic political philosophy supports a top-down view of government–the same government is best for all people–the rule of philosopher kings (and queens). Such a position is held by Neoconservative and social democratic ideologues who desire to “spread democracy to the entire world.” The geography, history, and culture of a particular state is ignored in a naive attempt to mold the state into the pattern preferred by the Neocons or social democratic hawks.

Ideology has a convenient way of resorting to ad hominem arguments when its basic principles are attacked. After all, if they are self-evident, the person who does not recognize them is, at the very least, ignorant–and possibly reprobate as well. This position cuts the ground from under rational discussion of important societal issues and dangerously divides people into hostile groups. Ideology is, as Nietzsche recognized, a form of the “will to power,” and in a society only filled with ideologues the fundamental ethic becomes “might makes right.” This is a prescription for societal chaos. If people feel forced into a corner because of ideological labeling, and rational discussion is out of the question, what is left but assertion of raw physical force?

Aristotle recognized, in theory at least, that understanding the world requires a bottom-up approach. While all observation is “theory laden,” this does not abrogate the fact that knowledge of reality arises from the senses. Thus, unlike Plato, Aristotle placed forms in things, and held that states should follow the system that best suits their history and culture.

As Alasdair MacIntyre recognized, the only way for communities with different values can rationally discuss issues is by having the person in one community “put himself in the shoes” of someone in another community to understand that community’s values. Once that occurs (and it must be a mutual process), then rational discussion can take place. Agreement may not be reached, but there should remain a feeling of mutual respect.

Russell Kirk famously said that conservatism is not an ideology, meaning that the form that conservatism takes in a particular state will depend on the history and culture of that state. Conserving key societal values is not a matter of imposing them, Platonic-Formlike, from above–most likely one will only come up with one’s own a priori values to apply to everyone. Rather, conservatism should have a deep respect for the way things are in the actual world. There may be need for change, but this is done slowly and with appropriate concern for the history of a people.

God forbid that American society melt into a soup of competing ideologies. The end of the United States as we currently know it (what’s left of it, at least) will most likely result.


What is “Global Interdependence”?

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Globe centred on Asia and Oceania - Satellite ...Human beings are not isolated, atomistic individuals. Both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were flawed in holding that they are. Aristotle was on the mark when he said that “Man is by nature a political [i.e. social] animal.” Human beings share a common nature–they are “rational animals,” to use another of Aristotle’s terms. Human being are dependent rational animals–Alasdair MacIntyre was correct in focusing on the dependence aspect that is so often ignored in both Classical Liberalism and Social Democracy’s notion of “autonomy.” Humans are dependent on nature to provide an environment for the basic necessities of life and livelihood. They are dependent on other living things for food, clothing, and oftentimes companionship. They are dependent on other people from the moment they are born to the day they die, notwithstanding modern and contemporary claims of atomistic autonomy. The modern nation-state, established in root form at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, consists of people under one central government authority. Yet nation-states have never been wholly sovereign or autonomous, since their survival has been dependent on trade and cooperation with other nations. With greater integration of economies, it is easy to push “global interdependence” as a principle that removes sovereign nations and replaces them with a world unified, if not politically, at least economically and in terms of a melding of cultures. Many collages and universities push “Global Interdependence” and require that it be part of the core curriculum classes.

As good as this emphasis sounds, it is fundamentally flawed. While humans are not atomistic individuals and are, in fact, dependent on others for survival and well-being, this does not imply an artificial unity in which all cultures merge into one and the world becomes “one big happy family.” The end of the Cold War has led to the formation of nation-states divided along ethnic lines, even in parts of Europe (the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union). Cultures that have thrived thousands of years continue to thrive and demand freedom from the centralized government of the modern nation-state, as is seen in tribal resistance to the weak central government in Afghanistan. Blood and individual cultures have shown themselves to be thicker than utopian schemes of a New World Order. I do not buy into the conspiracy theorists about the New World Order–in the United States it has meant free trade and the ruin of American manufacturing, the destruction of local cultures with their rich diversity (something that pseudo-multiculturalists and proponents of a politicized “global interdependence” do not understand). Human beings develop their uniqueness in community best within local cultures that vary due to geography, tribe, history, religion, and overall world view. This is what unifies human beings in community, not a system such as the “European Union” that originally found its strongest support among French and German Marxists. It is interesting that Chancellor Merkel, a Christian Democrat, supports a strong European Union, but underneath her rhetoric is an assertion of German economic strength rather than a support of an abstract, artificial unity that harks back to the Roman Empire. Despite the claims of Pax Romana, the “Roman Peace” was filled with rebellions against the central government, including two Jewish revolts from 68-74 and from 132-135. Since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D., Europeans have gone through periods of searching for that lost unity, from the “Holy Roman Empire” to the current “European Union.” Thus, “global interdependence” cannot refer to an ephemeral political union, and with the decline of the great Medieval unifier of Europe, Christianity, there is no hope for any cultural unity within Europe. If any group has a chance of “winning” the clash of cultures in Europe, it will be Islam. Of course, since we’re so “interdependent,” even the most Islamist of Muslims will join together in one happy family in which local religions and local cultures do not matter (notice the sarcasm in that statement). “Global Interdependence” is a valid concept; the problem is when it obscures real differences between states, cultures, and ethnic groups as if they do not matter (moral and cultural relativism). That is the view of global interdependence that is being pushed by the successors of the 1960s radicals on American colleges and universities as well as in the K-12 educational system. It is a deeply flawed position and should not be used as a tool to indoctrinate students in a radical, utopian agenda.

The Consumerist Subversion of Education

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John Henry Newman

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I do not believe that article titles are copyrighted–the title is this post is from an article in the Summer 2005 issue of Academic Questions. Today I heard another speaker claim that college and university students are customers. He used the tired old arguments that they are paying money for a service and are customers for that reason. I believe that such an attitude subverts education and can even be labeled as an unethical position.

Education, like medicine or law, is a “practice” (to use Alasdair MacIntyre’s term). Each of these fields have certain internal goods or goals that can only be gained through the practice. For example, medicine has as its goal the restoration of a sick person to health, and if physical health cannot be restored, the restoration of comfort to the patient. This involves the physician gaining certain virtues, such as skill in medicine, practical wisdom, compassion, and integrity. Yes, a patient pays a bill, and the physician receives the payment–but the patient should not be modeled primarily as a customer. To do so subverts medicine, for the real human being in need, the patient, is reduced to a product of economic concerns. A “medical practitioner” who thinks of his patients primarily as customers is no longer practicing medicine–his attitude toward medicine is intrinsically subversive and unethical.

The same follows for education. Cardinal John Henry Newman, in his book, The Idea of a University” (, states that the fundamental end of higher education is to impart “universal knowledge,” and that external goods such as money or ambition should be subsumed under this end. This does not imply that professors should not get paid, but only that they keep their priorities right.

Newman believes that education not only involves teaching facts, but teaching the student to have good thinking skills as well as moral virtue. Education moderates passion, and a truly educated student will learn to turn knowledge into wisdom. Newman argues against education as having only a utilitarian function, although he believes that the intellectual and moral skills imparted in eduction will practically aid society. In a recent book on education, the great historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan makes arguments that parallel Newman’s.

Admittedly, a college or university constantly “in the red” will not survive. But  there is a difference between modeling a university as “a business” and saying it is “only a business.” Yes, there is a business aspect to education, as there is to medicine and other practices. Yet in medicine it is wrong to harm a patient in the name of business. In education it is wrong to avoid academic excellence in the name of business. The student-teacher relationship ideally is a mentoring relationship that is unlike the relationship between clerk and customer. Students who hold the latter view are corrupted into thinking that they should get As for paying their tuition. Teachers who focus on “customer satisfaction” are no longer educations, but technicians. They are more like clerks than like professors. Administrations can too easily be led to overlook academic deficiencies as long as tuition money is rolling in. Knowledge, intellectual virtue, honesty, seeking truth no matter where it leads–these essential virtues that should be gained from higher education become slaves to economics. Such subversion is not education and is an unethical path around the essential internal goods of higher education. Any professor who violates the ends of higher education is no longer a professor, but something else entirely.